Mr. Bush got his way on the war funding bill--sort of. He won a "victory" when Congress passed the bill stripped of the timeline restrictions contained in an earlier version. But his victory over the budget didn't give him a victory in Iraq. It's unlikely that the "surge" strategy will give him a victory in Iraq either. Bush and his inner circle seem to have realized this, finally.
Having largely dismissed the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) in favor of the escalation strategy proposed by neoconservative "military theorist" Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, Bush now appears to be backpedaling. At a Rose Garden press conference on 24 May, Mr. Bush indicated that he might be amenable to yet another change in strategy. On several occasions, he noted that he now likes the recommendations of the ISG. Why the reversal? Is Mr. Bush changing the story to reflect "conditions on the ground," or is he buying time until he can make conditions on the ground fit the story?
The Never Ending Story
Bush's victory over the war-funding bill was, in fact, only a partial one. The popular opinion lately is that the Democrats caved. They didn't really. The bill does have a deadline--September 30, 2007. That's when the present war appropriation ends. It's also when General David Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq, is scheduled to give Congress a briefing on the progress of the "surge" plan.
As things look now, Petraeus won't have anything to show Congress come September except the spit shine on his heinie. Barring divine intervention, which hasn't been abundant in this war to date, all Petraeus will be able to say is yeah, well, things look better on the ground in some places but worse in others, and the Iraqi Parliament has made progress in some areas but the political situation still basically, uh, sucks.
A May 29 Los Angeles Times story stated that U.S. military leaders in Iraq doubt whether the political goals Mr. Bush laid out when he announced the troop buildup earlier this year will be met by the end of summer. Even Frederick Kagan, the American Enterprise Institute neoconservative who proposed the buildup, says the military will have few political accomplishments to report by September.Some advisers to Petraeus say it was never realistic to expect the Iraqi government to agree on its most divisive issues by then. And security in Baghdad is still a distant goal.
So advisers are putting together a collection of "smaller achievements" they consider to be signs of progress that Petraeus can use to convince Congress that the surge has been a success even though it failed to accomplish its primary goals.
Mission accomplished again!
The Program and the Players
On 26 May, the New York Times and other news sources announced that the administration is developing contingency plans for reducing U.S. forces in Iraq by as much as half in 2008. While the reports are probably true, they may not mean a whole lot. I'm confident planning is also being done to sustain troop levels at their present levels for as long as possible. Lt. General Ray Odierno, the number two commander in Iraq, says any withdrawal of troops was not advisable until December "at a minimum." Odierno, who has lobbied for extending the troop increase, notes that units are in place or available to extend the "surge" into April of next year.
Within the administration, Cheney and his side men may argue that merely starting a troop drawdown will embolden al-Qaeda and militia groups that have recently gone underground. Odeirno and Petraeus seem to prefer sticking with the escalation. CNN reports that Petraeus was not involved in the troop reduction discussions. It's tough to say where Secretary of Defense Bob Gates stands. He was a member of the IGS for a time, but he almost had to know, when he took the SecDef job, that Bush was going to stiff arm the IGS recommendations.
Rumors of power realignments within the administration abound. One hears that Cheney continues to fall out of favor, and that Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have informally allied to oppose him. But every time Cheney seems to have retired to an undisclosed country club he reemerges, nasty and snarly as ever.
Whispered leaks suggest that a segment of the active duty flag officer community have tacitly threatened to turn in their walking papers if the White House doesn't start listening to them and ignoring think tank neocons like Fred Kagan. But these are just whispers.
Mr. Bush himself gives the appearance of flip-flopping on Iraq. For years he stuck by Donald Rumsfeld's insistence that no more troops were needed in Iraq, and on the eve of the November election, indicate that Rummy would stay on the job throughout the remainder of the Bush term. When the election results became official, Rummy was out, the ISG recommendations were shelved, and Kagan's troop escalation was in. Now, amid concerns expressed by congressional Republicans that the Iraq war could devastate the GOP come November 2008, Bush gives indications that he's leaning back toward the ISG's policy and strategy tenets--tenets like engaging diplomatically with Iraq's neighbors and focusing U.S. troop efforts on training Iraqi troops that Kagan said "will fail."
One theory says that Mr. Bush intends to stall for as much time as he can to ensure that the Iraq war isn't "lost" on his watch, and intends to let the next guy clean up the mess. Another theory posits that Mr. Bush has promised Republican legislators and presidential hopefuls that by hook or by crook, he'll ensure that the Iraq issue is off the table come election time. We can't really know what will happen until it happens, and even then we'll have reason to wonder what really happened.
Even the people in charge of making things happen won't really know what happened because, as the past four years have clearly illustrated, they never really knew what they were doing. And as recent developments indicate, they still don't.